After former Vice President Al Gore spoke at the recent Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, I noticed a curious phenomenon. Many of the engineers who saw his speech were hesitant to give an assessment. Still, they expressed their opinions, sometimes without speaking a word. They smirked. They rolled their eyes. Because Gore's subject matter — global warming — can be a delicate political issue, they stepped softly. Nevertheless, they made their points.
When I returned to my office after the conference, I found our editors had placed a poll question on our website: Does global warming pose a serious threat to life on earth? If I hadn't gotten the message in San Jose, it certainly hit home when I saw the poll results: 62 percent of those who responded said it didn't pose a serious threat, 38 percent said it did.
That, of course, goes against the grain of prevailing media coverage. According to any number of poll results, most Americans believe in global warming. A Zogby public opinion poll in 2006, for example, said approximately 70 percent of Americans “thought global warming is happening.” Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll in 2006 showed 74 percent of Americans considered global warming to be a very serious or somewhat serious problem.
It doesn't surprise me engineers would hold different opinions on global warming than the rest of the American public. Most engineers have a show-me mentality. And most, I suspect, don't want to make their decisions on the basis of politics. That alone separates them from much of America, which, according to the Pew Center polls, has strongly aligned its global warming beliefs on a Democrat-Republican basis.
To be sure, the largest segment of the consumer media has declared the global warming debate over. USA Today said so in 2005 and recently added, the “Earth is spinning toward many points of no return.” Similarly, Newsweek published a multi-part cover story in April titled “Save the Planet or Else.”
But for those who still thirst for technical information, it's out there. Wikipedia, for example, still offers an astonishing amount of information, complete with scores of technical references, most of which are accessible through the Web. Similarly, Newsweek seemingly acknowledged the debate isn't over when it recently published a contrary opinion by MIT meteorologist, Richard S. Lindzen.
Also, author Michael Crichton has posted a fairly even-handed expert debate on his website, although he is an avowed disbeliever in the idea that global warming is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Crichton's debate, which is available as a podcast or typed transcript, is a must-see for those still looking for information because it opens the floor to both sides.
Let's be honest: Most of us aren't meteorologists or climatologists. But every day we work in the world of the physical sciences and, as such, we generally have a strong antenna for junk science. It's this antenna, I think, that's causing the disparity between what we believe and what the rest of the country believes.
It's necessary that we keep the antenna up. That's part of who we are. At the same time, though, we need to stay on top of the science in this matter. Whether we like it or not, we are increasingly being seen as the soldiers in a battle against a worldwide catastrophe. So, if we're going to have opinions — and especially if we're going to have contrary opinions — we better base those opinions on science, not politics.
Weigh in with your opinion by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.